The FemFest, dedicated to promoting gender equality and supporting opportunities for all, dedicated part of its program to women’s hockey. Agidel and Team Russia goalie Anna Prugova, former international player and current coach Alexandra Kapustina, and leading hockey correspondent Darya Mironova discussed the rise of women’s hockey, talked about tackling the haters and busted a few old-fashioned myths about women in sport.
- How did you start playing hockey?
Anna Prugova: In 2003 they opened the Platinum Arena in Khabarovsk and my parents decided to take us to the hockey. It was the first time in my life. I loved the energy, the way players really fought for the puck. At school I played volleyball and my mom wanted me to go to a music school. But I didn’t have much appetite for that and it wasn’t long before I was telling my parents that I wanted to play hockey and become a goalie. I’m really grateful for their support, when lots of people said it was a stupid waste of time. The next year, for International Women’s Day, my dad bought me a full goalie kit. Even though it was 2004, I had a real old-school kit, like Tretiak wore in the 70s. Khabarovsk had an amateur women’s team and I started playing there. My parents had to ferry me all around town to get to practice and it would have been easy for them to say it was too much effort, but luckily they were right behind my desire to play the game.
Next I was invited to train at a sports school with boys from my age group. I’ll never forget my first practice. The boys were shocked that a girl was going to play with them. They joked about me: “How can a girl be a goalie? That will never work!” But I didn’t let it get to me, I didn’t start crying, I just wanted to prove them wrong, to show that I was as good as them. And I played with them for four years, qualifying for national competitions. Everyone was amazed that there was a girl on the team because it was a rare thing back then.
In Khabarovsk I had my own locker room but, on the road, there was just one room for the whole team. Our coach was smart. If we won, the boys got to use the room first then took a hike, leaving the room at my disposal. But if we lost, I got to go in first and there were 20 boys standing outside waiting for me. Of course, that was a big motivation for them to win the game!
Alexandra Kapustina: My dad got me into hockey. We started with rinkball, which is like bandy but on a small ice pad. I also played basketball, but I wasn’t tall enough to be a good player. I also liked hockey because we went abroad to play in tournaments. That was back in the early 90s when foreign travel was very rare. When we came home, we went around the whole school like performing monkeys, telling everyone what we had seen, what life was like in Europe. Once ice hockey became part of the Olympic program, we switched from rinkball to hockey and suddenly I was part of the birth of Russian women’s hockey.
It wasn’t an easy switch. I didn’t like the heavy padding – suddenly I had to carry an extra 15 kg. It was hard to play with a puck, and even the stick was uncomfortable at first. But then we saw all the great things about this game: the speed of the puck, the physical battles.
Today, women’s hockey is a non-contact sport but when we started we played just like the men. I was always a big girl and a bit of a tomboy. I hung out with the boys, we played in the yard and I enjoyed it. I liked that in hockey you could hit each other. I could crunch a forward into the boards and steal the puck. But gradually, checking was phased out of women’s hockey. It was hard to adapt, because we learned to play differently. But it doesn’t hurt women’s hockey as a spectacle: quite the opposite, today’s young players focus more on technique: puck control, stick-handling, skating.
I grew as a player when women’s hockey was just starting in Russia. The first Russian national team was made up of players who joined from other sports. We had a lot from bandy, where there aren’t the same complex technical elements. We had swimmers, water polo players, figure skaters. Of course, the figure skaters were better on their skates than us, but always at the same pace. They couldn’t sprint, but they could keep going for a long time without getting tired. And that’s how women’s hockey was born in Russia.
- Your stories show that you are strong personalities who can confidently take a place in any group. Hockey is in your nature!
Alexandra Kapustina: On the internet there are plenty of armchair critics who love to write “why are these girls playing around on the ice, shouldn’t they be cooking the dinner?”. For these chauvinists, they can only write what goes on in their own heads. For some reason, they want to put women down, treat her as an inferior, nothing more than a housewife. But in my day-to-day life I haven’t encountered that kind of hate. The people I meet admire women who play hockey.
Anna Prugova: I’ve met a few haters. There was a time when I used to hide the fact that I played hockey. Maybe that was because of one man I met who was like: “Haven’t you got anything better to do? Hockey isn’t a woman’s game. Go and learn something useful.” It was impossible to even talk to him; he had his stereotypes and wouldn’t listen to any other argument.
Alexandra Kapustina: A lot of men come to women’s hockey from the men’s game and they are skeptical about it. “Women’s hockey? Is it some kind of joke?” Alexander Semak, the GM at Agidel, once said in an interview that he used to feel that way but quickly changed his mind when he saw how the girls worked in training, how they were even more committed than the men. As women, in any part of life, we have to do that little be extra to be successful. Vladimir Golubovich, the head coach of SKIF, also didn’t really know what women’s hockey was all about at first, but later he fell in love with it. The girls can’t rely on physical strength, so they learn to play smart, fast, passing hockey. If the media can pay more attention to the Women’s Hockey League in Russia, I’m sure the popularity of women’s hockey will only grow.
After the Sochi Olympics, when we got a lot of airtime on TV, we attracted many new fans. More people found out that women’s hockey is a thing, parents were more interested in bringing their daughters to play hockey. Everyone could see that these were nice, normal girls who also played really great hockey. On one team that I coach, we have a goalie who came along because she liked the way Anna Prugova played for Team Russia. Off the ice, Anna is an elegant, sophisticated women; on it, she’s a real warrior.
- It’s worth noting that the WHL is the only professional women’s league. There aren’t a lot of alternatives!
Alexandra Kapustina: Yes, Russian girls are lucky that we have a chance to devote ourselves entirely to hockey, to constantly practice and improve. Yes, we’re not quite as good as the Finns and we’re still a long way from the level of Canada and the USA, but that’s a question of scale – there are far more teams and players. In Finland there are three leagues at different levels, in North America it’s another world. And there is some kind of a pro league there, but it’s hard for players to live purely off their hockey salaries: a contract will, at best, cover food and rent.
Anna Prugova: We need to get over these stereotypes and keep pushing the message that there’s nothing wrong with women who play hockey. Why are Canada and America so far ahead? Because they have equal rights there. Where there is sport, boys and girls are encouraged to play. Nobody gets upset about it. But when we go to another town with our hockey kit, everyone is looking at it and thinking “who are they? What’s going on?”. But in Canada they hold the door for you without looking surprised. Everybody knows you’re a hockey player, and that’s OK.
We often get girls from gymnastics and figure skating who want to try hockey. That’s no surprise, hockey is a sport that can use lots of different skill sets. You have to be really flexible. For me, as a goalie, I need to be able to do the splits, front and side. We have step aerobics in our physical training. So hockey can definitely be a feminine sport.
- What kind of stereotypes do you face?
Anna Prugova: People say that women’s hockey has too many injuries. I’m sorry? Is figure skating safe? If a girl doesn’t land her jump, she falls on the ice and hurts herself. Just look at the bruises! In volleyball, girls can break fingers and dislocate shoulders. Injuries are part and parcel of pro sport. I hear from some parents who won’t let their daughters play in case they get into fights every night. People think that every hockey player has a broken nose. Seriously? This is the 21st century! The girls all wear cages. If you don’t believe me, go online and have a look. Hockey doesn’t mean you can’t be feminine. We’re right here in front of you, look: Alexandra and I have nice nails, all our teeth are in place. Parents need to support their daughters. If they want to do gymnastics, sign up for the gym. If they like hockey, sign up for hockey.
- In Canada, hockey is part of the school program for boys and girls alike. In Russia, girls play volleyball at school. Is that part of the issue?
Alexandra Kapustina: Of course. But not every school has facilities for hockey. My dad was a progressive teacher. When I was five, we moved to the countryside, and dad wanted to transform the village school. With his own hands he built a court, made a treadmill. They froze it over and played hockey. Dad knocked on every door to get the kit that he needed. That enthusiasm achieves a lot. The more people we have like him, or like SKIF’s president Sergei Kolotnev, the more women’s hockey players we will have in future.
- Has sexism affected your career?
Alexandra Kapustina: Unfortunately, in Russia sexism infects every part of life. When I finished my playing career and wanted to be a coach, I ran into it immediately. A man with no hockey experience at all stood more chance of getting a coaching role than I did, despite my vast background in women’s hockey and my coaching certificates. All those efforts crashed into a barrier of sexism. All the coaches loved to say: “Girls, the future is yours! You will be great coaches. You will lead women’s hockey into the future.” But under their breath, they muttered: “But later. When we’re gone. While we’re here, we’ll be in charge and we don’t need you near us.” And the situation is the same in other walks of life.
Anna Prugova: Sexism doesn’t just affect female athletes. Look at male dancers. People say they are doing a woman’s job. There is a stereotype that a man must be tough, a warrior. But nobody is obliged to meet someone else’s prejudices. It was the same when men started to compete in synchronized swimming and people laughed. Why should it be like that? It’s a good thing. More people got interested in the sport, it added to the spectacle. And the athletes had new ways of expressing themselves. Why does it get such a negative reaction?
- Does women’s hockey have a bright future?
Alexandra Kapustina: Of course. Everyone involved in the game believes in our future. But each of us needs to devote some of our efforts and enthusiasm to supporting women’s hockey. It’s like my mom explained to me when I was a child, and I’d drop trash in the streets: “Everyone complains that we live in filth, surrounded by trash. But we’re the ones who drop it all over!”. And it’s the same here. If we want a bright future for women’s hockey, we have to work for it. Parents need to set aside their doubts and bring their daughters to hockey as well as their sons. It’s a great sport and once you’re part of it, you’re in a huge, warm family.